Search Results for: New England Review

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

The Spokane, Washington skyline. (Getty Images)

Here are five stories that moved us this week, and the reasons why.

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1. They Went to Bible College to Deepen Their Faith. Then They Were Assaulted—and Blamed for It.

Becca Andrews | Mother Jones | September 30, 2021 | 8,500 words

“But you drank the alcohol, right?” he asked. “What did you do to deserve to be hit?” That’s what Dean Timothy Arens of Moody Bible Institute asked student Anna Heyward when she described abuse, including rape, perpetrated by her boyfriend, who was also a student. That’s just the tip of the iceberg: Becca Andrews’ investigation into the impact of “purity culture” on MBI’s response to reports of sexual abuse and harassment on campus is deep and far-reaching. It’s enough to make your blood boil. Andrews exposes a robust culture of blaming victims and side-stepping accountability, all in the name of God. She describes the weakening of Title IX protections at religious institutions under Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, which makes future Anna Heywards more vulnerable to judgment, humiliation, or worse at MBI, Liberty University, and other evangelical colleges. “All the women I spoke to who were survivors of sexual violence at Moody say they experienced … difficulty in finding the language to express what had happened, because it was impossible to see beyond the constraints imposed by Moody’s specific interpretation of Christianity,” Andrews writes. “It can be hard to recognize harassment when it is at the hands of a brother or a sister in Christ.” —SD

2. Reporter’s Diary: Finding Forgiveness in Burundi’s Mass Graves

Désiré Nimubona | The New Humanitarian | September 14, 2021 | 3,921

I live in Canada, and Thursday September 30th marked our first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, a new statutory holiday introduced to reflect on Canada’s history of abuse against Indigenous people — made particularly poignant by the recent discoveries of mass grave sites at former residential schools. Sadly, Canada’s troubled history is far from unique and this piece is about a small and often overlooked African country called Burundi — a place only just starting to peer down dark roads with its own Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Désiré Nimubona, a new writer to Longreads, spent 2020 following this Commission as they explored atrocities which started in the 19th century, when Burundi was first colonized by a European power, to 2008. It’s not comfortable reading. Nimubona literally watches mass graves being uncovered, with search teams holding up “belts, shoes, clothes, and other items pulled from the ground in the hope that residents would recognize who they belonged to.” In 1972, somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 Hutus were killed in Burundi. Nimubona was born six years after this bloodshed, but his life was shaped by it, displayed in the matter-of-fact way he tells us that in 1996, Tutsi soldiers made him and some friends lie in front of an armored truck: his friends were crushed to death. Still, amazingly, Nimubona does not seek pity in this essay, nor retribution. Rather, he finds hope in seeing Hutus and Tutsis uniting to inform the Commission. Where possible truth and reconciliation is, after all, about healing. —CW

3. I Had a Chance to Travel Anywhere. Why Did I Pick Spokane?

Jon Mooallem | The New York Times Magazine | September 21, 2021 | 5,138 words

I’ve never been to (or have any interest in visiting) Spokane, Washington. I’m not into minor-league baseball, either. So I read Seattle writer Jon Mooallem’s essay with no expectations, yet was surprised to come out the other side with a slight ache in my heart. On his first real trip after 17 months inside a pandemic bubble with his wife and two young daughters, Mooallem visits and experiences Spokane — a place he’d been genuinely curious about for years — at a baseball game of the city’s minor-league team, the Spokane Indians. With the Delta variant causing a surge in cases in the city, the idea of sitting in an open-air stadium seemed like “a manageable, belated step into the mid-pandemic lifestyle that people were calling post-pandemic life.” Mooallem’s piece explores the unique history of the team, and its special partnership with the Spokane Tribe of Indians (“we are not their mascot,” says the Spokane Tribal Business Council’s chairwoman). But, even more, it’s an unexpectedly lovely meditation on reentering the world: an anxious parent navigating life with an unvaccinated child; dealing with everyday stressors like wildfire smoke, COVID spikes, and survivor’s guilt; and pushing through pandemic lockdown inertia — which I’m personally trying to overcome. —CLR

4. Crash

Jesse Lee Kercheval | New England Review | June 21, 2021 | 1,925 words

This essay from Jesse Lee Kercheval at New England Review is a piece of writing that does not allow you to look away. Imagine you’re a child, eating deliciously salty, forbidden French fries after a swim at the beach on an idyllic summer day. Suddenly, you’re witnessing a horrific split-second car accident when someone fails to stop at a stop sign. Decades later, as Kercheval recounts this experience, she is unable to recall the most horrifying visual details from the scene, yet she cannot escape the sound. “I remember this. I can close my eyes and feel that metal on metal in my body,” Kercheval writes. The words she chose are simple, but their power teleported me to a car accident I was in in my late teens. The crunch of metal on metal is something I’ll never forget. This piece reminds me that writing has the power to connect us all across time and culture when it comes to what the body remembers from extraordinary experiences. —KS

5. An Interview With Chuck Palahniuk

Kathryn Borel | The Believer | September 27, 2021 | 5,659 words

I may not be a Chuck Palahniuk superfan, but I am 100% a smart-conversation-with-smart-people superfan, so this Believer Q&A had me from moment one. The last few years have been tough on the Choke novelist (and newly minted Substack writer), as they have been on so many of us; in addition to the usual psychic burdens, he went bankrupt after losing millions to an embezzling accountant. But prompted by knowing, empathic questions from Borel, he delves into his own regrets and coping mechanisms — both pre- and post-sobriety — and adds to our ever-accreting sense of a writer who’s as protective as he is prolific. “You know, I will stand on my head and whistle Dixie and do all these crazy things,” he says at once point, “because to me, being a genuine writer means that you’re able to shed all human dignity in a moment. People depend on you to express something that they can’t express. But I don’t want to betray people I love.” The first rule of a great interview is you share that great interview. —PR

On Racism and Epithets

Brian Ach/Invision for Spaulding/AP Images

One of the greatest features of the literary essay is its flexibility. An essay can be linear and chronological. It can be digressive and circular. The dots it connects can form a trapezoid whose structure remains hidden until the last sentence makes everything crystal clear. The best essays are, as essayist Phillip Lopate once said in a lecture, a map of the movement of a human mind, and part of an essay’s pleasure is seeing how different minds work.

For the New England Review, fiction write Robert Lopez explores racism’s vastness and influences, in both his life and the world at large. Ranging freely to collect seemingly divergent points, he connects elements from American culture with his past and present to create a brilliant, fresh portrait of racism and its lasting effects, using particular racial epithets to lead his way. We always need powerful perspectives on American racism. His is wildly original and affecting.

I used to describe myself as half Puerto Rican and half Italian and half Cuban and half Spanish. I called it the new math.

Of course it wasn’t true, those percentages. But saying one was a quarter or eighth or some other tiny fraction of anything always felt stupid to me.

Which is akin to being classified as a quadroon or octoroon, which was also ridiculous and awful.

During American slavery, quadroon was used to designate a person of one- quarter African ancestry, that is equivalent to one biracial parent and one white or European parent; in other words, the equivalent of one African grandparent and three white or European grandparents.

Some terms for quadroons in Latin America are morisco or chino.

In the ’90s I worked at an Italian restaurant on Long Island as a waiter and, like in many restaurants in New York both then and now, Latinos staffed the kitchen. One such line cook was referred to as Chino. That’s what everyone called him and that’s what I called him. I have no idea what his given name was, perhaps it was Roberto or Jesus.

You can imagine why he was called Chino.

The term mulatto was used to designate a person who was biracial, with one pure black parent and one pure white parent, or a person whose parents are both mulatto. In some cases, it was used as a general term, for instance on US census classifications, to refer to all persons of mixed race, without regard for proportion of ancestries.

The US Government used quadroon and octoroon, etc., as distinctions in laws regarding rights and restrictions.

The only math I did as a teenager was the calculation of batting averages and earned run averages, the probability of drawing to an inside straight, now known as a gut-shot straight, which you should never attempt.

Now the only math I do is by increments of 15. 15-love, 30-15, deuce.

My tennis community here in Brooklyn is diverse and glorious. In the past year I’ve played with Mexicans, Guatemalans, Haitians, Jamaicans, folks from Qatar, Egypt, Nigeria, all manner of Europeans, quite a few Australians and South Americans, Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Pakistani, even people from Ohio.

White, black, brown, color and off-color. All kinds of fractions.

Read the story

Ten Outstanding Short Stories to Read in 2022

"The words 'short story' picked out on a grungy old typewriter."

The #longreads hashtag on Twitter is filled with great story recommendations from people around the world. Throughout the year, Pravesh Bhardwaj posts his favorite short stories on Twitter, and then in January, we get to share his favorites with you to enjoy in the year ahead.


Starting with Kevin Barry’s “That Old Country Music” from Electric Lit to Aleksandar Hemon’s “Blind Jozef Pronek and Dead Souls” from The Baffler, I posted 276 stories in 2021. Here are the ten I most enjoyed reading.

“Prophets” by Brandon Taylor (Joyland)

Brandon Taylor’s Real Life was shortlisted for The Booker Prize in 2020. He followed it with the short story collection Filthy Animals, published in June, 2021. The following story is set in the world of academia — Brandon Taylor’s Macondo.

The famous black writer was in town to give a reading, and Coleman was not sure if he would go. He had known the famous black writer for a few years, but only indirectly. They had many friends in common and had gone to the same university, though years apart. The famous black writer had a kind of totally useless fame, which was to say that he was notable among a small group of people interested in highly experimental fiction that was really memoir but also a poem. The famous black writer had built a reputation for pyrotechnic readings that sometimes included slideshows of brutalized slave bodies and sometimes involved moan-singing. Coleman had watched videos of the famous black writer and had felt a nauseating secondhand embarrassment, thinking Is this how people see me?

The famous black writer was handsome—tall, with striking bone structure, and a real classic elegance. He looked like an adult, like a finished version of an expensive product. His hair was quite architectural. The night of the reading, he wore a mohair coat and slim-cut, all-black ensemble right out of a photograph from the 1950s.

“Muscle” by Daniyal Mueenuddin (The New Yorker)

Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders was a sensational debut collection of short stories. Since reading it, I have been looking forward to his next work. The following story appeared in The New Yorker.

Back in the nineteen-fifties, when old Mian Abdullah Abdalah rose to serve as Pakistan’s Federal Secretary Establishment, a knee-bending district administration metalled the road leading from the Cawnapur railway station to his Dunyapur estate. They also pushed out a telephone line to his farmhouse, the first phone on any farm in the district. Even now, thirty years later, there was no other line nearby. A single wire ran many forlorn miles from Cawnapur city through the flat tan landscape of South Punjab, there on the edge of the Great Indian Desert, then alongside the packed-dirt farm tracks laid out in geometric lines, and finally entered the grounds of a small, handsome residence built in the style of a British colonial dak bungalow.

Now, for the second time in a month, the Chandios had stolen a section of the telephone wire, which served for all the area as a symbol of the Dunyapur estate’s preëminence. The Chandio village sat far from the road at the back end of the estate, buried in an expanse of reeds and derelict land, dunes that had never been cleared. Testing Mian Abdalah’s grandson, Sohel, who had returned from college in America six months earlier and moved onto the estate, they had been amusing themselves and bearding him by cutting out lengths of the wire that passed near their village and selling them for copper somewhere across the Indus.

“The Great Escape” by Hilma Wolitzer (Electric Lit)

The current pandemic has changed our lives; I am one of those who felt that 2021 was tougher than 2020. Hilma Wolitzer’s story, published in her collection, Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket tells a tender but sweeping story of a decades-long marriage.

I used to look at Howard first thing in the morning to see if he was awake, too, and if he wanted to get something going before one of the kids crashed into the room and plopped down between us like an Amish bundling board. Lately, though, with the children long grown and gone to their own marriage beds, I found myself glancing over to see if Howard was still alive, holding my breath while I watched for the shallow rise and fall of his, the way I had once watched for a promising rise in the bedclothes.

Whenever I saw that he was breathing and that the weather waited just behind the blinds to be let in, I felt an irrational surge of happiness. Another day! And then another and another and another. Breakfast, vitamins, bills, argument, blood pressure pills, lunch, doctor, cholesterol medicine, the telephone, supper, TV, sleeping pills, sleep, waking. It seemed as if it would all go on forever in that exquisitely boring and beautiful way. But of course it wouldn’t; everyone knows that.

“Witness” by Jamel Brinkley (Lithub)

This story was selected as an O. Henry Prize winner in 2021.

My sister threw upon the door so that it banged against the little console table she kept by the entrance. “Silas,” she said breathlessly, before even removing her coat, “I have to tell you something.” Which was enough to make me feel trapped, as though the words out of her mouth were expanding and filling up the space in her tiny apartment. I told her to calm down and apologized, and then I began making excuses for myself. I had assumed she would be angry at me because of the previous night, so I was primed for what she might say when she got home from work.

“Don’t be so defensive,” Bernice said. “I’m not talking about that.” She tapped my legs so I would move them and then plopped down next to me on the love seat. The chill from outside clung to her body. I saved my reformatted CV, set my laptop on the floor, and listened.

The man who sang out of tune had been waiting for her again. He had started standing near the card shop on Amsterdam Avenue during her lunch hour two weeks earlier, and she had quickly noticed his repeated presence. As she passed him that afternoon, he faced her directly and gave her a meaningful look, which was more than he had ever done before. “But all he did after that was keep belting it out in that terrible voice,” she told me. “A sentimental song, you know? The sweetness of making love in the morning.” Even though he was thin and light skinned and wore those big, clunky headphones—“ Not my type at all,” she said—Bernice did find him somewhat handsome. But since he didn’t say anything, she just went inside the shop.

“The Wind” by Lauren Groff (The New Yorker)

Lauren Groff had a lovely novella What’s the Time, Mr.Wolf? published in The New Yorker as well, but this story is special and carries a punch.

Pretend, the mother had said when she crept to her daughter’s room in the night, that tomorrow is just an ordinary day.

So the daughter had risen as usual and washed and made toast and warm milk for her brothers, and while they were eating she emptied their schoolbags into the toy chest and filled them with clothes, a toothbrush, one book for comfort. The children moved silently through the black morning, put on their shoes outside on the porch. The dog thumped his tail against the doghouse in the cold yard but was old and did not get up. The children’s breath hovered low and white as they walked down to the bus stop, a strange presence trailing them in the road.

When they stopped by the mailbox, the younger brother said in a very small voice, Is she dead?

The older boy hissed, Shut up, you’ll wake him, and all three looked at the house hunched up on the hill in the chilly dark, the green siding half installed last summer, the broken front window covered with cardboard.

The sister touched the little one’s head and said, whispering, No, no, don’t worry, she’s alive. I heard her go out to feed the sheep, and then she left for work. The boy leaned like a cat into her hand.

He was six, his brother was nine, and the girl was twelve. These were my uncles and my mother as children.

“Forty-Two” by Lisa Taddeo (New England Review)

Lisa Taddeo won her first Pushcart Prize for this story. Her novel Animal was published in 2021.

In a small wooden box at her nightstand she kept a special reserve of six joints meticulously rolled, because the last time she’d slept with someone on the regular he’d been twenty-seven and having good pot at your house means one extra reason for the guy to come over, besides a good mattress and good coffee and great products in a clean bathroom. At home your towels smell like ancient noodles. But at Joan’s the rugs are free of hair and dried-up snot. The sink smells like lemon. The maid folds your boxers. Sleeping with an older woman is like having a weekend vacation home.

“A Dangerous Creature” by Mary Morris (Narrative Magazine)

Mary Morris’ story is one of heartache and loss, about a family and their newly found rescue dog.

The dog is a rescue. He was dumped from a moving car right in front of Dr. Katz’s office. Pete, the vet technician, was on the stoop, smoking a cigarette, when it happened. Dropped like a sack of potatoes, Pete told Dr. Katz. Pete picked up the dog—a mangy black-and-white with deep dark eyes—and brought him to Dr. Katz, who was finishing up a Rottweiler with glass in its paw. The dog is a mongrel—a Lab and something-else mix. Maybe shepherd or border collie. Dr. Katz isn’t sure. A gentle dog. About two years old. He is mostly white but with a black tail and black patches, including one that encircles his left eye. The minute Roger Katz lays eyes on the dog he knows he’ll call him Pirate.

Roger wasn’t planning on adopting a dog. It’s kind of a joke among his wife, children, friends, and extended family. The cobbler’s family has no shoes. The Katz family has no pets. They’d had the occasional fish and hamster—none of which had survived very long in that household. But never a cat and never a dog. In fact, Roger’s name is a bit of a joke for his line of work. Katz Animal Care. Danny, his middle child, had thought up the motto: “We do dogs. And Katz too.” But the family itself has never had either of these as a pet.

“The Hospital Where” by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah (Longreads)

Nana Kwame Adjei-Breynah’s story about a father and his writer son is a part of his celebrated collection Friday Black.

“What are you looking for?” said a woman who I hoped knew I was already lost and scared. She stood in front of me in purple scrubs and colorful nurse-type shoes. Her brown hair was spun into something that let everyone know she was very busy and hadn’t slept in a long time. The tone of her voice, spiced with the Bronx, said I was one of many inconveniences in her life.

“I’m looking for my dad; he just came through here a second ago.”

“Is that all?” She tapped her clipboard with a pen. “What department?” I had no idea what department my father was looking for, so I told her the truth about that. “Well, I don’t know how you don’t know, but —” She was about to take great pleasure in telling me that I was in this situation due to my own incompetence and that even though she could not help me, she herself was very competent. I walked away from her before she could finish.

“Unread Messages” by Sally Rooney (The New Yorker)

Sally Rooney won an O. Henry Prize for this story in 2021. Her third novel Beautiful World, Where Are You was published last year.

At twenty past twelve on a Wednesday afternoon, a woman sat behind a desk in a shared office in Dublin city center, scrolling through a text document. She had very dark hair, swept back loosely into a tortoiseshell clasp, and she was wearing a dark-gray sweater tucked into black cigarette trousers. Using the soft, greasy roller on her computer mouse she skimmed over the document, eyes flicking back and forth across narrow columns of text, and occasionally she stopped, clicked, and inserted or deleted characters. Most frequently she was inserting two full stops into the name “WH Auden,” in order to standardize its appearance as “W. H. Auden.” When she reached the end of the document, she opened a search command, selected the Match Case option, and entered “WH.” No matches appeared. She scrolled back up to the top of the document, words and paragraphs flying past illegibly, and then, apparently satisfied, saved her work and closed the file.

At one o’clock she told her colleagues she was going to lunch, and they smiled and waved at her from behind their monitors. Pulling on a jacket, she walked to a café near the office and sat at a table by the window, holding a sandwich in one hand and a copy of “The Brothers Karamazov” in the other. At twenty to two, she looked up to observe a tall, fair-haired man entering the café. He was wearing a suit and tie, with a plastic lanyard around his neck, and was speaking into his phone. Yeah, he said, I was told Tuesday, but I’ll call back and check that for you. When he saw the woman seated by the window, his face changed, and he quickly lifted his free hand, mouthing the word Hey. Into the phone, he continued, I don’t think you were copied on that, no. Looking at the woman, he pointed to the phone impatiently and made a talking gesture with his hand. She smiled, toying with the corner of a page in her book. Right, right, the man said. Listen, I’m actually out of the office now, but I’ll do that when I get back in. Yeah. Good, good, good to talk to you.

“Shanghai Murmur” by Te-Ping Chen (The Atlantic)

Te-Ping Chen’s debut collection In Land of Big Numbers was included in Barrack Obama’s favorite reads of 2021. This story is about a flower shop assistant’s involvement with a professional who has a fountain pen that costs more than the assistant’s yearly salary.

The man who lived upstairs had died, and it had taken the other tenants days to notice, days in which the sweetly putrid scent thickened and residents tried to avoid his part of the hall, palms tenting their noses as they came and left. At last someone sent for the building manager, who summoned his unemployed cousin to break the lock and paid him 100 yuan to carry the body down the three flights of stairs.

There was a squabble as the residents who inhabited the adjoining rooms argued that they should have their rent lowered; the death was bad luck. Xiaolei stood listening as the building manager shouted them down. She felt sorry for the man who had died, whom she recalled as middle-aged, with tired, deep-set eyes, a chain-smoker who’d worked at the local post office. She supposed that if she ever asphyxiated or was stabbed overnight, the same thing would happen to her.


Be sure to check out Pravesh Bhardwaj‘s story picks from 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, and 2015.

No Heart, No Moon

AP Photo

Matt Jones | The Southern Review | Summer 2018 | 22 minutes (4,337 words)


The space race killed the sparrow.

Of course, there were other factors.

There was the decision in ’46 by the Brevard Mosquito Control District to slather the Merritt Island salt marshes in DDT dropped aerially from a No. 2 diesel–fuel carrier.

Then, because the mosquitoes grew resistant to DDT, there was the application of BHC and Dieldrin and Malathion.

Read more…

Queens of Infamy: Isabella of France

An illustration of Queen Isabella of France
Illustration by Louise Pomeroy

Anne Thériault | Longreads | June 2022 | 29 minutes (8,006 words)

From the notorious to the half-forgotten, Queens of Infamy, a Longreads series by Anne Thériault, focuses on world-historical women of centuries past.

If you love Queens of Infamy, consider becoming a Longreads member.

* * *

In the late summer of 1326, a small mercenary army gathered in Dordrecht, Holland, preparing to cross the North Sea and invade England. This in and of itself wasn’t all that unusual — from the Romans to the Vikings to the Normans, it seems like all of the European historical heavyweights wanted a piece of that green and pleasant land. I mean, I get it! It’s a classic case of those itchy Julius Caesar fingers: A man sees an island, and he wants to take it. What set this case apart was that the person leading the army wasn’t a king or a prince or a red-headed upstart duke, but a woman who was already the queen of England — had been queen, in fact, for nearly two decades. And the king she wanted to depose wasn’t some usurper who had unjustly taken the throne, but rather Edward II, her husband and the father of her four children. As she stepped onto that boat, the 31-year-old queen would set into motion a sequence of events that would leave her forever remembered as Isabella the She-Wolf of France.

* * *

The French social scene of 1308 began with two glittering back-to-back events: the wedding of the future Charles IV of France to Blanche of Burgundy and, a week later, the wedding of his sister Isabella to Edward II of England. With Charles clocking in at 13 years old, and Isabella having just celebrated her 12th birthday, it was a double tween wedding extravaganza! Charles’ new wife, a veritable spinster at the ripe old age of 11, was young but at least age-appropriate. Edward, meanwhile, was nearly twice his child bride’s age — he would turn 24 three months later. Still, it wasn’t exactly an inauspicious start. By all accounts the union of the king and future queen of England was a sumptuous affair, attended by no fewer than eight European monarchs, as well as assorted princes, princesses, and other nobles. For Isabella, who was brightly turned out in robes of blue, gold, scarlet, and yellow and a crown dripping with precious stones, this was the moment she’d been preparing for since she was 4 years old.

With Charles clocking in at 13 years old, and Isabella having just celebrated her 12th birthday, it was a double tween wedding extravaganza!

Isabella of France was likely born in 1295 or early 1296, since most contemporary chroniclers agree that she was 12 years old at her wedding on January 25th, 1308. At the very least, we know that she wasn’t any younger than 12, since that was the minimum age at which someone could marry in the church. Her brothers all have recorded birth dates, naturally, but I guess when royal daughters were born someone just scrawled “fuck, looks like another girl,” in some forgotten journal somewhere.

Isabella was born into the illustrious Capetian dynasty, which had been ruling France since 987 A.D. Her father, Philippe IV, was also known as Philippe le Bel, because along with his many other sterling qualities he was also, apparently, extremely good-looking. It’s always good to have a hot king! Bolsters the national morale and all that. Philippe did a lot of stuff, including various wars, quashing the Knights Templar, and, at one point, arresting the pope. Dante Alighieri referred to him throughout the Divine Comedy as the Plague of France, but that’s just one Italian man’s opinion. Anyway, he certainly had an eventful life.

Isabella’s mother was Joan I of Navarre, a sovereign ruler in her own right, though she left the actual governing of Navarre to various appointees. She and Philippe had grown up together at the French court, and by all accounts they were mutually smitten with each other. One source I read described her as “plump and plain,” but, like, come on, by the time she was 25 she’d already given birth seven times. Let’s cut the woman some slack. Joan died in childbirth when Isabella was just 10 years old, already predeceased by two of her daughters. Only four of Philippe and Isabella’s children lived to adulthood; of those, Isabella was the youngest and the only daughter, and some sources say that her father doted on her especially.

Meanwhile, Isabella’s new husband had never really been close with his own father, Edward I of England, also known as Longshanks and the Hammer of the Scots. For one thing, there was a 45-year age difference between the two and Edward II was raised mostly by his nurse, and for another, Edward I’s legacy was just a lot to live up to. It probably didn’t help that Edward II was the fourth and only surviving son of Edward I and Eleanor of Castile — I feel like after you’ve seen three potential heirs die, it’s kind of hard to get invested in the last one. Like, oh, I guess you’re going to be king. Good luck! Try not to fuck it up too badly.

If Philippe IV was famous for being hot, then one of Edward I’s key personality traits was being so tall that you could climb him like a tree (and many women did). As his second nickname suggests, his other main thing was that he loved going to war with Scotland. Loved it! He’s the one who killed Braveheart! One historian even reported that his dying wish was to have all the flesh boiled off his body so that his bones could be mounted on a standard and brought onto Scottish battlefields. Now that’s commitment to a fault.

EDWARD II: I also did a lot of wars in Scotland

EDWARD II: you could say it was a sort of inheritance my dad left me, along with being really tall

EDWARD II: I didn’t get any fun nicknames, though

EDWARD II: actually, if people did have nicknames for me, I doubt they’d be flattering

EDWARD II: so it’s probably for the best if I don’t know about them

It must have been difficult to grow up in the shadow of a father who basically embodied the medieval ideal of kingship. It didn’t help that the younger Edward had some quirky hobbies: ditching, hedging, and thatching roofs. You know, peasant shit. Edward II’s dream vacation involved slumming it with a bunch of commoners, drinking beer with them and doing some manual labor, followed by a quick dip in the river (swimming just wasn’t a thing in England at the time, so Edward’s fondness for it was seen as further proof of his weirdness). But while all this stuff caused a fair amount of side-eye at court, the thing that people gossiped most about was Edward’s lifelong series of intense, emotionally charged relationships with men that made him behave in seemingly irrational ways.

Was Edward gay? That’s a tough question to answer, especially since medieval England didn’t have the same conception of sexuality as we do now. We do know that, along with his relationships with men, Edward also slept with at least one woman other than his wife, so maybe if he were alive in 21st-century Britain he’d identify as a chaotic bisexual. Or maybe not! This stuff is so tricky to unpack without assigning identities that may or may not be accurate. What is certain is that, whether or not the relationships Edward had with these men were sexual, he loved them and was infatuated with them to the point of self-destruction. What is also certain is that many of his contemporaries believed he was having sexual relationships with these men, and much of the ill-treatment he would receive at the hands of these contemporaries was rooted in homophobia.

Edward’s first favorite to cause a stir was Piers Gaveston, the son of a Gascon baron who had fought for Edward’s father in several campaigns. Actually, it was Edward I who had brought Piers into his son’s life, placing him as a squire in his household. Edward and Piers were both around 16 years old and soon became inseparable. At first, old Edward I was delighted, thinking that the charming, handsome boy was a good influence on his son. But then came an incident where the two teens went on some kind of hooligan tour around the Bishop of Chester’s property, drunkenly pulling down fences, scattering his deer and other game. Cheeky rapscallions!

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When the king tried to talk to his son about this little misadventure, the younger Edward “uttered coarse and harsh words to him.” The past is a foreign et cetera, but back-talking teenagers are forever. As part of his punishment, the prince was forbidden from seeing Piers, though it wouldn’t be long before the two were back in each other’s orbits. This was the beginning of a pattern that would last the rest of Piers’ life: He and Edward would get up to some shit, the pair would be forcibly separated, Edward would somehow finagle a reconciliation, and then after a brief period of quiet the two would once again get up to some shit.

EDWARD II: eventually my father just straight up exiled Piers to Gascony

EDWARD II: because of “undue intimacy” between us

EDWARD II: I’m sorry, is that a crime in this country now??

EDWARD II: he also forbade me from ever bestowing any titles or lands on Piers

EDWARD II: I wasn’t even allowed to go visit him

EDWARD II: anyway, when my dad died, the first thing I did was bring Piers back to England and make him the Earl of Cornwall

EDWARD II: like, literally, first thing

EDWARD II: less than a month after the old dude kicked it

Five months after his father’s death, Edward sailed to France for his wedding. When the happy couple returned to England on February 7th, 1308, Piers was there waiting for them at the docks. To say that Edward was thrilled to see him would be an understatement — one contemporary account describes the king falling into Piers’ arms and “giving kisses and repeated embraces.”

What did Isabella think of all this? It’s hard to know, since her reaction to meeting Piers went unrecorded. Actually, a lot of things about Isabella went unrecorded — we don’t know what color her hair or eyes were, how tall she was, or really anything about her appearance other than that she was routinely described as beautiful. Edward himself called her Isabeau the Fair (which is a pretty cute nickname, to be honest). And really, what else do you need to know about a woman other than whether she’s hot or not?

And really, what else do you need to know about a woman other than whether she’s hot or not?

Isabella might have found Edward’s behavior strange, but then again she was a 12-year-old arriving in a whole new country — she probably found a lot of things strange. Maybe she took her husband kissing and clinging to his favorite as yet another bit of culture shock. Or maybe she thought it was totally normal! This was, after all, a time when men were much more physically affectionate with each other, and kissing was a common greeting. That being said, the other noblemen gathered at Dover to greet the king and his new bride certainly knew that something was up — for one thing, even if kissing was culturally normalized, there was only one man among them getting kissed. And, of course, these men all knew that Piers had already been sent away from the young king twice. Even if the rumors about Piers had yet to reach Isabella, they would soon.

The coronation was a disaster. For some reason, Edward let Piers plan the whole thing, even though he had no background in event planning (and, after that day, no future in it either). First of all, Piers outdressed everyone in pearl-encrusted robes of imperial purple silk, even though that color was supposed to be reserved for royalty. Then he went ahead and assigned himself the best role in the procession, carrying England’s most sacred relic: the crown of St. Edward the Confessor. But fashion and religious slights aside, the whole thing was just a shitshow. Lack of crowd control led to a wall behind the altar collapsing and killing a knight. The food for the feast arrived hours late, and when it did come it was so badly cooked that it was inedible. Piers seated himself next to the king, a spot that should have belonged to the new queen. But the insult that truly put things over the top for Isabella’s family was the fact that the tapestries on the walls had Edward’s arms next to Piers’ arms, while Isabella’s were conspicuously absent.

PIERS: the whole thing was devastating, to put it mildly

PIERS: here I am, trying to plan this beautiful day for my king

PIERS: and anyone who knows me knows that my passion is pageant planning

PIERS: I was trying to look my best for him

PIERS: trying to publicly redeem myself after that humiliating banishment

PIERS: and some of the stuff that went wrong legitimately wasn’t my fault

PIERS: for one thing, a wall collapsing seems more like a structural issue

PIERS: and of course Edward wanted to sit next to me, his age-appropriate friend

PIERS: what is a grown man going to talk to a little girl about?

PIERS: which horsie in the parade had the prettiest braids in their hair?

PIERS: how to dress your poppet for the pretend ball??

PIERS: please!

PIERS: I’ll admit that the tapestry thing was a touch too far, though

What was Isabella’s reaction to all this? We don’t know, though several contemporary chroniclers noted that several close family members who were present — specifically, two uncles and a brother — were absolutely fuming over the insult. Some accounts even have them storming out of the feast, silk robes and velvet capes a-swirling. While that most likely didn’t happen, it’s still fun to imagine because medievals had the best flouncing clothes. Modernity has its upsides, but it’s hard to make a dramatic exit in jeans and a sweatshirt.

But even if we have no historical record of what Isabella was going through in the wake of her disastrous coronation, she must have felt incredibly hurt and alone. Not that anyone should be too sympathetic to the royals, who live lives of unbelievable wealth and comfort, but it is pretty unhinged to be born into this very public job and have to do that job until you die. Not to belabor this point, but Isabella was 12, an age where everything about life seems excruciatingly embarrassing. I can only imagine what it must have felt like to be sent off to a whole new life, with a new husband who can barely give you the time of day, to live in a new culture whose customs you don’t understand, and then be humiliated in front of everyone who’s anyone.

However, life goes on, and Isabella had little choice but to figure out how to live in a strange royal ménage à trois. At least one contemporary source says that Isabella hated Piers (at first, anyway), but even if she did, there wasn’t much she could do — a prepubescent, foreign-born queen doesn’t exactly wield much institutional power. Edward continued to see Piers frequently, whether his wife liked it or not. Piers continued to further alienate the rest of the English nobility by making up rude nicknames for them (“Sir Burst-Belly” and “The Whoreson” are representative of his sense of humor), while also limiting everyone’s access to the king. Basically, if you wanted a favor or any kind of patronage, you had to go through Piers, and you also had to be ready to pay him for the privilege. Unsurprisingly, the favorite remained extremely unpopular among everyone who wasn’t Edward.

The nobles started intriguing against Piers pretty much immediately after the coronation. When Parliament met in March, almost everyone present demanded another banishment. Edward told them he’d think about it, then granted a bunch of his stepmother’s lands to Piers. Parliament met again at the end of April and renewed their demands. Meanwhile, Isabella’s father, perhaps prompted by complaints from his daughter, sent some spies envoys to make sure that he had an accurate picture of the queen’s life at court.

Eventually, Edward caved and agreed to strip Piers of his title as earl of Cornwall and exile him. Considering that his “exile” involved a cushy appointment as the new lieutenant of Ireland (who, by the way, had viceregal powers), it doesn’t seem like much of a punishment. Isabella flourished while Piers was away, traveling across the country with her husband as he carried out his official duties. Edward, meanwhile, seemed to finally notice his wife, and began granting her lands and privileges. The queen must have hoped that she’d finally winnowed her marriage down to two people.


PIERS: I left Ireland less than a year after arriving there

PIERS: then Edward immediately restored my titles

PIERS: Just picture me sailing to England while Eminem’s Without Me plays in the background


The barons were extremely chill about this development and decided to just live and let live when it came to the king’s favorite. Kidding! Piers’ return pushed the country to the brink of civil war. A bunch of barons calling themselves the Lords Ordainers planned — with the backing of Parliament — to come up with a bunch of regulations curtailing the royal abuse of power. One of these barons was the earl of Lancaster, who happened to be Isabella’s uncle and Edward’s first cousin and would prove to be an enormous thorn in the king’s side. Edward was not thrilled about the regulations, called Ordinances, but Parliament basically told him that if he didn’t accept them, he’d be overthrown.

Backed into a corner, Edward decided that now was a great time to start a military campaign against Scotland. Everyone knows that wars are great for the economy, plus if you’re a guy that everyone is accusing of being gay and corrupt, it’s good branding to look like you’re following the footsteps of your strong, masculine, extremely heterosexual father. Oh also Piers was going to come too.

The campaign was a disaster, at least in part because most of the nobles who were pissed at Edward refused to join in. It’s cool to let your own commoners die in battle because of petty infighting! Meanwhile, Robert the Bruce, king of Scotland, was up there reaping the rewards of England’s inability to get their shit together. Thanks, Ordainers!

Things continued to not go well for Edward. That winter, the earl of Lincoln died, which was a problem for the king since the earl had been one of the few moderate voices in Parliament and had managed to somewhat control the Ordainers. After that, the shit really hit the fan. The Ordainers finally completed and presented their list of 41 Ordinances, and chief among them was that Piers would be exiled again. Edward, never one to properly read a room, said that he’d agree to the rest of the Ordinances as long as Piers could stay. The thing about bargaining, though, is that you have to offer something of equal value in order to get what you want. The king had nothing to offer and everyone knew it.

Piers left England on November 3rd, then snuck back in, possibly as soon as late November. Certainly by early 1312, Piers and Edward had been reunited. I’m not sure how these chuckleheads thought this was going to play out, but obviously it didn’t end well.

ROBERT THE BRUCE: Edward even asked me at one point if Piers could come stay with me in Scotland

ROBERT THE BRUCE: I’m sorry, but weren’t you trying to invade my country last year?

ROBERT THE BRUCE: and now you want a favor from me?

ROBERT THE BRUCE: ok, bud, good chat

Meanwhile, Isabella turned 16 and, just a few months later, found out she was pregnant.

What was the Queen up to during all these Piers shenanigans? Mostly just queen stuff, like, patronages and whatever, plus publicly supporting Edward and his doomed quest to keep one hot man in the country. But while Isabella might not have been able to speak out against her husband’s antics — assuming that was even something she wanted to do — she was in a better position than she’d been in a few years before. Not only was she older and more experienced but, most importantly, she was carrying what everyone hoped would be the heir to the English throne. Four years into her role as England’s queen, Isabella was finally ready to step into the spotlight.

Four years into her role as England’s queen, Isabella was finally ready to step into the spotlight.

But first there was the whole Piers issue to resolve, which Edward did by fleeing from the Ordainers with the queen and his favorite. Early in the journey they were all traveling together, but later the two men ditched the pregnant Isabella, either because they were worried about her safety or because her household was moving too slowly (this wasn’t exactly a high-speed chase, since everyone involved had an entire staff of servants plus carts and carts of supplies). Anyway, eventually there was a siege, Piers was (predictably) captured, then tossed in a dungeon until his jailers could decide what to do with him.

EDWARD: so they had a little mock trial

EDWARD: where Piers wasn’t even allowed to speak in his own defense

EDWARD: then they took him out into the road and ran him through with a sword

EDWARD: I’ve seen animals slaughtered with more dignity

EDWARD: they called it an execution, but for what crime?

EDWARD: me not wanting to follow their made-up rules?

EDWARD: rules that let them arbitrarily exile people they don’t like?

EDWARD: no wonder the rest of Europe thinks we’re a barbarian backwater

Edward was devastated, and would grieve the loss of his favorite for the rest of his life, but Piers’ death did have a stabilizing effect on the country. For one thing, the Ordainers had gotten what they wanted, more or less. For another, all the nobles who weren’t part of that core group of Lords Ordainers thought that what had happened was, frankly, super fucked up. As a result, the king enjoyed far more support than he’d had since he’d come to the throne.

His image also got a boost from Isabella’s pregnancy, since that helped dispel some of the rumors about his sexuality, plus a royal baby is always good for PR. Isabella delivered a healthy son on November 13th, and Edward was so overjoyed that he gave £20 cash plus £80 per annum for the rest of their lives to the couple that brought him the good news. At a time when an unskilled laborer was earning around £2 per year, that was a pretty hefty sum. Edward’s faults were many, but he was an unfailingly generous man. He also just seems to have been thrilled to be a dad — throughout his life he would take genuine delight in his children, creating a much different environment than the one he’d grown up in.

His image also got a boost from Isabella’s pregnancy, since that helped dispel some of the rumors about his sexuality, plus a royal baby is always good for PR.

By the end of 1312, Isabella was 17 and finally settling into some kind of normalcy. With Piers out of the picture, the queen seemed to come into her own, managing a large household, doing all her official queen stuff, and even occasionally advising her husband (to be fair, he needed all the advice he could get). Edward, to his credit, seemed to dote on his wife even as he mourned Piers’ death. Things weren’t perfect — one historian describes Edward’s court as a “disorderly hotbed of jealousies, intrigues and tensions,” which sounds like it would be fun for maybe a week and then get very old very fast — but they were stable. Which might be why he and Isabella decided to go to France in the spring of 1313.

Isabella and Edward’s trip to France went fine, except that a tent that they were sleeping in caught fire. Edward bravely scooped up his wife and carried her out, though she suffered burns on her arms which troubled her for several months. One contemporary chronicler noted that the king and queen of England were completely naked when they came out of the tent, which must have been a titillating sight. But other than being That Time When The Royal Couple Almost Burned To Death After Doing It, this trip to France is best known for allegedly being the time when Isabella sowed the seeds of the Tour de Nesle Affair, an event which would help speed the demise of her family’s entire dynasty. Whoops! Here are the facts of the situation: Isabella had three brothers, all of whom were married. At some point it was discovered that two of her sisters-in-law were cheating on their husbands with a pair of Norman knights, and the third sister-in-law knew about this and was somehow aiding and abetting. Isabella’s father found out and shit went very sideways for the wives and their boyfriends. The knights were castrated and then, according to various sources, either drawn and quartered, flayed alive, or broken on the wheel and then hanged. All three women went to horny jail, though one of them was eventually pardoned.

Facts aside, here is the rumor that dogged Isabella for the rest of her life: During her time in France, she allegedly gave some cute purses to her sisters-in-law after watching a “satirical puppet show” with them. Later that year, Isabella noticed a pair of knights holding those same purses at a dinner in London. She apparently came to several conclusions from this: Purses are both genderless and useful, and also her sisters-in-law had slept with these knights and then gave them these purses to remember them by. So the queen called up her father and told him that his daughters-in-law were giant sluts. Isabella’s alleged motive was to get rid of all these potential royal baby-making machines and clear the way to the French throne for her own children. This makes absolutely no sense, since a) Isabella’s children were not in line for the French throne and b) she had no way of knowing that all three of her brothers would die without any surviving male children. It was one of those stories that gained traction later, when there was a succession crisis in France and this narrative seemed to prove certain ugly things about the English queen’s character, but when looked at closely it doesn’t hold any water.

Meanwhile, things were chugging along in England. Edward cycled through a few new favorites, but none of them held his attention the way Piers had. In the summer of 1314, he decided to start yet another military campaign in Scotland, apparently forgetting that just two years earlier he’d been begging the Scottish king to give sanctuary to his favorite. Not sure if you’ve ever heard of a little battle called Bannockburn, but it was an absolute disaster for the English. Edward left home at the head of an enormous army and returned to England in a fishing boat. It was another public humiliation in a long line of public humiliations and reignited some of the tensions between him and the Lords Ordainers.

If Edward hoped that 1315 would be a better year, he was sadly mistaken. Heavy rains and flooding led to poor crops and drowned livestock, which in turn led to widespread famine. Obviously, this did nothing to bolster Edward’s popularity, though Isabella did help national morale by popping out another son in 1316, which she and Edward named John. Then in 1318 she gave birth to a daughter, which they named Eleanor after Edward’s mother.

Obviously, this did nothing to bolster Edward’s popularity, though Isabella did help national morale by popping out another son in 1316, which she and Edward named John.

Shortly after Eleanor’s birth, something truly bizarre happened: A man named John showed up claiming to be the real king of England. He said that he was the true son of Edward I, but his ear had been bitten off by a sow when he was an infant, which had led to a royal nurse switching him out with a commoner’s baby, who then grew up to be Edward II. The king thought the whole situation was pretty funny and suggested John be made into a court jester. Isabella was considerably less amused. The matter might have ended there, but John kept trying to convince Edward to fight him in single combat for the throne. In the end, John was put on trial for sedition and hanged. What a weird little interlude.

In late 1318, a man named Hugh Despenser became Edward’s new chamberlain and, shortly thereafter, became Edward’s new favorite. In many ways, their relationship would mirror the one Edward had had with Piers, but there was one crucial difference. While Piers had never seemed to have any goals besides exclusive access to the king (and making up rude nicknames for everyone else), Hugh was power-hungry. Isabella had always more or less graciously endured Piers’ presence, but she would soon come to absolutely loathe Hugh.

By the time 1320 rolled around, Edward was in deep smit, and Hugh was embroiled in some extensive land-grabs in Wales. This resulted in a new set of enemies for the king: the so-called Marcher Lords from the border between England and Wales. They showed up at Parliament to demand Hugh’s exile shortly after Isabella gave birth to her fourth and final child, a girl named Joan.

ISABELLA: Edward refused, of course

ISABELLA: I was terrified that this was going to spiral into another Piers situation

ISABELLA: except worse

ISABELLA: so I got down on my knees and begged Edward to exile Hugh

ISABELLA: on my knees

ISABELLA: in public

ISABELLA: while still recovering from childbirth

ISABELLA: he eventually gave in, but I’ll let you guess whether that exile stuck

Meanwhile, Edward came up with a plan to get rid of the Marcher Lords and, of course, bring Hugh back. He came up with a scheme that involved Isabella going on a “pilgrimage” to Canterbury, but then detouring along her way to stop at Leeds Castle, which belonged to one of the Marchers. The queen demanded that she and her retinue be accommodated at the castle for the night, which was her right. But with the lord of the castle away, his wife refused to admit Isabella since, you know, her husband was in a fight with the king. Isabella’s servants tried to enter the castle by force, and six of them were killed by the castle guards. That was all Edward needed to start an all-out war against the Marchers and end Hugh’s exile.

The war with the Marcher Lords ended in a decisive victory for Edward at the Battle of Boroughbridge. This resulted in the exile, imprisonment, or death of many of Edward’s enemies, including the old earl of Lancaster, whose execution mirrored Piers’ murder all those years before. Edward was finally able to get his revenge, but he didn’t stop at punishing those who had been directly involved in Piers’ death. Instead, he and Hugh went on a years-long campaign to destroy anyone and everyone related to Piers’ killers. Lands and titles were taken and redistributed to Edward’s supporters (especially Hugh), possessions were confiscated, widows and children were imprisoned.

EDWARD: I don’t know who it was that said that the best revenge is living well

EDWARD: but they were wrong

EDWARD: the best revenge is the kind that lines your pockets and makes children cry


What did Isabella think of all this? She’d publicly supported Edward throughout his war with the Marcher Lords, as well as helping run the country while he was out on campaigns, giving up a few of her strategically placed castles to aid in the fighting, and, of course, taking part in the ruse that Edward had used to start the war in the first place. Some contemporary chroniclers paint her as being shocked and distressed by the death of her uncle, the earl of Lancaster, but there had been so much enmity between the two of them over the years that it seems equally possible that she was unmoved. What we do know is that around this time there began to be obvious cracks in Edward and Isabella’s relationship, and in just a few years Isabella would blame Hugh for destroying her marriage.

In 1322, Edward launched yet another disastrous military campaign in Scotland. You might be wondering why I’m bothering to mention it — are these failures even noteworthy at this point? This man has two hobbies: toxic relationships and fucking up in Scotland. But this particular failure involved an event that — for Isabella, at least — was a true crossroads. At some point during the conflict, while the queen was staying at Tynemouth Priory, she was in danger of being captured by the Scots and had to flee through pirate-infested waters. It was a calamitous and possibly even deadly escape; one chronicler alleges that a lady-in-waiting died and another went into preterm labor, though these claims can’t be verified. What is certain is that Isabella felt abandoned by her husband, and she said that Hugh had “falsely and treacherously” counseled Edward “to leave my lady the queen in peril of her person.”

After that, Isabella kind of disappeared from the public record for a while. In late 1322, Edward said that she was going on a pilgrimage to “diverse places within the realm,” but it’s not clear if that’s true. It’s equally possible that Edward sent her away to cool off, or that the queen had finally peaced out of her own accord. If I thought my husband had abandoned me to the Scots and/or a dangerous sea voyage, I would probably leave too!

Things continued to go badly for Edward, or, rather, Edward continued to cause things to go badly for himself. In 1323, Isabella’s brother Charles, now the king of France, insisted that Edward come and pay homage for lands that England held in France. Edward was pissed because the French had slowly been encroaching on these lands, so he politely told Charles to go fuck himself. Charles even more politely told Edward that he was free to go fuck his own self, and a small war ensued.

On September 18, 1324, Edward seized Isabella’s lands in Cornwall under the pretext that they were vulnerable to French invasion and thus he had to … protect them I guess? That was already his job as king of the whole country, but that’s fine. He also seized the rest of her lands and castles, even though the majority of them weren’t on the coast. In lieu of her income from these properties, which was what paid for all her household expenses, Edward granted her an allowance. He also removed all the French attendants from the queen’s household (except for her chaplain) and either imprisoned them or forced them to return to France. According to some chroniclers, Edward even appointed Hugh Despenser’s wife as some kind of guardian for Isabella, meant to surveil her communication with her family. All of this was intended to be cruel and humiliating to the queen, and she was sure that Hugh was behind it.

ISABELLA: but then in March of 1325, my husband sent me to France

ISABELLA: to work out some kind of peace with my brother

ISABELLA: kind of a weird move, considering

ISABELLA: I wish I could be pithy and say, “this was his first mistake”

ISABELLA: but, let’s be real, this was more like his one millionth mistake

Six months later, Edward made another enormous blunder: He sent his eldest son, the 12-year-old Edward of Windsor, to join Isabella in France. Although a tentative peace had been reached, England still had to pay those pesky homages for their French lands. Edward should have gone himself, but he knew how unpopular his little regime was and he was worried that someone would assassinate Hugh in his absence (he was especially anxious because a magician named John of Nottingham had recently tried to kill them with magic). The king might have brought his favorite along with him to France, except that Hugh had been banished from that country. So instead, Edward decided to throw his son into the snake pit and hope for the best.

By the end of 1325, it was clear to everyone that Isabella was not returning to England and neither was her son. She didn’t mince words about it either, declaring publicly that “… someone has come between my husband and myself […] and I will not return until this intruder is removed.” What’s less clear is whether or not she was already formulating a plan to invade England and get her husband off the throne.

At some point during Isabella’s time in France, a man named Roger Mortimer entered the picture. He was one of the Marcher Lords, and, though Edward had tried to imprison him, he had somehow managed to escape and flee to the continent. Much has been speculated about Mortimer’s relationship with Isabella, some of it based in fact, but most of it not. For example, the rumors that the two of them had been secretly in love for years, or that Isabella had somehow helped him escape from jail were highly improbable. Same with the popular narrative that Isabella found Edward too effeminate and thus sought gratification in Mortimer’s virile arms — not only is this wildly homophobic, there’s also just no evidence that Isabella was unhappy with her husband before Hugh came onto the scene. These bits of fabrication might provide people with satisfying story arcs — that Isabella and Mortimer had a secret years-long affair right under Edward’s nose, or that the queen was enacting some kind of revenge against her husband by taking her own lover — but real life is rarely that tidy. But whether or not Isabella and Mortimer were sleeping together (and there’s no conclusive evidence that they were), they formed a powerful political alliance.

Edward begged Isabella to come back. He begged her to send their son back. Eventually the pope got involved, writing separately to both Edward and Isabella to try to get them to reconcile. The pope even wrote to Hugh, telling him to back off. Isabella stuck to her guns and said she wouldn’t budge as long as Hugh was in England, adding that she feared he would kill her if she returned. But getting rid of Hugh was the one thing Edward couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do.

POPE JOHN XXII: have you ever watched someone absolutely run their life into the ground for a bad relationship?

POPE JOHN XXII: and you ask them why they’re doing it and they don’t have a real answer?

POPE JOHN XXII: they’ll be like, ‘I know it’s bad, but …’

POPE JOHN XXII: then they just keep doing it?

POPE JOHN XXII: anyway, this was like that, except he was running an entire country into the ground

POPE JOHN XXII: sometimes a person’s choices are just so astonishingly bad that you almost have to admire them

Mortimer wasn’t the only English lord hiding out in France, and soon enough the queen had amassed quite a following. Isabella began planning her invasion, but there was one very obvious sticking point: She was broke. Edward had, of course, cut her off long ago, and without her lands in England, she had no source of income. But the resourceful queen figured out a way around this: She brokered a betrothal between her son and Philippa of Hainault, the daughter of a wealthy Dutch count. Isabella was able to fund a mercenary army with the aid of Philippa’s substantial dowry. On September 7th, 1326, she set off to conquer her own country.

Isabella and her army landed in England just over two weeks later, and didn’t face much resistance as they began zigzagging across the country. Edward had made many enemies in high places, and even the general population was pretty sick of his shit by this time. The king, sensing that things would not go his way, fled London for Wales, at which point the capital descended into chaos. Isabella and Mortimer, meanwhile, were hell-bent on vengeance. When they caught Hugh’s father, another crony of Edward’s, they hanged the elder Despenser and then fed his body to a pack of dogs. Then, on November 16th, 1326, Edward and Hugh were captured in south Wales. The jig was up.

Isabella and her allies gave Hugh a mock trial during which a long, long list of his crimes was read out. He was found guilty on all charges, of course, and sentenced to a brutal execution that involved a dragging through the streets by four horses, being hauled up and down by a noose around his neck, having his penis and testicles cut off, and then being eviscerated. His head was taken to London, where it was displayed on London Bridge, and the rest of his body was dismembered and sent to the four quarters of the realm. That’s what we call hanging, drawing, and quartering, baby!

Edward, now a broken man, was moved to Kenilworth Castle under heavy guard. Isabella, meanwhile, installed herself in Wallingford for the Christmas season. The pope wrote to her several times encouraging her to reunite with her husband, but that wasn’t happening. Invading your spouse’s country and horribly murdering his favorite and a bunch of his friends seems like an obvious relationship deal-breaker.

When Parliament met in early January of 1327, they agreed to depose Edward and crown his 14-year-old son. Isabella would act as regent until Edward III came of age. A deputation was sent to Kenilworth, where a swooning Edward II, dressed all in black, agreed to abdicate the throne and begged his subjects’ forgiveness. What else was he going to do? He was smart (or defeated) enough to know that there was nothing to be gained from fighting back. His enemies had won. All he could do now was try to make sure his eldest son was given his proper inheritance.

Isabella kept up a friendly correspondence with her estranged husband, in spite of the fact that she had just destroyed his life. She wrote to him enquiring after his health, sent him little presents, and said that she wished she could visit him but the “community of the realm” wouldn’t permit it. In fact, Isabella would never see Edward again. On September 21st, 1327, Edward died under mysterious circumstances at Berkeley Castle, where he’d been sent after a foiled plot to free him from Kenilworth.

ISABELLA: people thought that I had him killed, of course

ISABELLA: you’ve probably heard some of the rumors

ISABELLA: like the one about him dying from a burning poker up his …

ISABELLA: you know what, I’m not going to repeat it

ISABELLA: suffice to say that it was as ridiculous as it was disgusting

But these weren’t the only rumors. There were others that said that Edward hadn’t died at all, but had, in fact, escaped, and the body that lay in state for a whole month at St. Peter’s Abbey in Gloucester belonged to someone else entirely. There continued to be sightings of the dead king for years. One man even wrote to Edward III in the late 1330s, saying that his father was living in a hermitage in Italy.

It would be nice if this story ended with Isabella competently running the country until Edward III came of age, a satisfying conclusion after all that she’d gone through to wrest the country out of Hugh Despenser’s grip. But, again, real-life narratives are rarely so convenient or tidy. What actually happened was that during her handful of years as regent, the queen emptied the country’s coffers and enriched Mortimer with lands and goods much in the same way her husband had with Hugh. Much like Edward’s relationship with Hugh, it’s hard to figure out what it was about Mortimer that led Isabella to neglect her country so badly. Did she love him? Was she in on the take? Was there some kind of extortion going on? Had she ever really wanted to save England from her husband and Hugh, or had it all just been petty revenge?

Speaking of revenge, by late 1329 or early 1330, the 17-year-old Edward III was already fomenting his own rebellion. He was tired of his mother’s controlling ways, and felt that she behaved badly toward Philippa, who was now his wife. As for Mortimer, he had started behaving as if he was king, and undermined Edward III at every turn. The final straw for the young king was when Mortimer ordered the execution of his father’s half brother Edmund. With Mortimer picking off everyone who stood between him and royal power, Edward III must have wondered if he was next.

On Friday, October 19th, Isabella was relaxing with Mortimer in her bedchamber at Nottingham Castle when Edward III and a small group of knights burst in. Mortimer was quickly taken prisoner, while Isabella was placed under guard (as her favorite was being dragged, bound and gagged, out of the room, Isabella allegedly cried out, “Fair son, have pity on the gentle Mortimer”). Just over a month later Mortimer (still bound and gagged) was convicted by Parliament of the murder of Edward II and sentenced to death. He was hanged on November 29th. Though his trial and death bore eerie parallels to that of Hugh Despenser, Mortimer was at least spared the whole castration/disembowelment/beheading thing.

Isabella, who was only 35 years old at the time of her downfall, was held under house arrest for two years and then retired to lead a country life. Once the restrictions on her freedom were lifted, she enjoyed traveling around the country, hosting visitors, and doting on her grandchildren. The wayward queen who had once rebelled against her husband and invaded her own country died a quiet death at the age of 63, an apparently contented woman.

In the years after Isabella’s death, popular depictions of her grew increasingly dire. She was portrayed as an unnatural woman, bloodthirsty, out to emasculate all the men around her. When an 18th-century poet combined Christopher Marlowe’s unflattering portrayal of Isabella with the term She-Wolf, which Shakespeare had used to refer to Margaret of Anjou in Henry VI, the nickname stuck. Her image became a two-dimensional caricature of sex-crazed bitch, instead of the complicated person she’d actually been.

It’s impossible now to know why, exactly, Edward and Isabella behaved the way they did. How could Edward not see how harmful his relationships with his favorites, particularly Hugh Despenser, were to the rest of his life? How could Isabella repeat a pattern of behavior that she had so loathed in her husband? How could two people who seemed so fond of each other for most of their marriage treat each other with such cruelty? And yet they did, and on a national stage to boot.

And while it’s tempting to slip into a WOW, WHAT A BADASS WARRIOR QUEEN, GET IT GIRL kind of rhetoric when talking about women like Isabella, what makes stories like hers endure is the fact that beneath all the superlatives is someone who’s profoundly human. Isabella was messy in her personal life. She made bad choices, choices that sometimes irrevocably harmed relationships with people she cared about. She could be selfish and capricious. She could be downright cruel. But she was also brave, resourceful, and, in her own strange way, loyal to a fault.

For all that there is to criticize about Isabella, there’s so much to admire as well. She strategized, launched, and completed a successful military campaign against all odds. With the backing of a relatively small band of soldiers, she managed to take an entire country. And maybe most impressive of all, she believed that she had worth in a world that mostly considered women to be worthless. A meeker queen would have been cowed by Hugh and stood helplessly by while her husband took away her lands and rights, but not the She-Wolf of France.


For further reading:

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Anne Thériault is a Toronto-based writer whose bylines can be found all over the internet, including at the Guardian, the London Review of Books and, obviously, Longreads. She truly believes that your favourite Tudor wife says more about you than your astrological sign. She is currently raising one child and three unruly cats. You can find her on Twitter @anne_theriault.

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Editor: Krista Stevens
Copy editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Fact Checker: Lisa Whittington-Hill
Illustrator: Louise Pomeroy

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Close up of orange seaweed on fine sandy beach seen from above.
Close up of orange seaweed on fine sandy beach seen from above. Horizontal composition.

Here are five stories that moved us this week, and the reasons why.

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1. Love and Longing in the Seaweed Album

Sasha Archibald | The Public Domain Review | March 9th, 2022 | 2,500 words

The news of 2022 is like an anvil weighing down on our collective psyche. This week, I found myself hungry for a read that felt like a relief — a collection of words that would inspire delight, not despair. This essay delivered. It’s the quintessential example of a factoid-filled piece you read and then find yourself immediately (and perhaps annoyingly) telling people about. Me to a friend: “Did you know that seaweed collecting in 19th-century England was a feminist activity?” Also me: “It’s possible that seaweed collecting inspired George Eliot to start writing fiction.” Me again: “Tweens once exchanged seaweed albums like kids now trade Pokemon cards!” Sasha Archibald writes with grace and humor, and she shows how, far more than just a charming pastime, the bygone practice of seaweed collecting intersected with the wider currents of history. It’s a breath of sea air. —SD

2. Night Shifts

Michael W. Clune | Harper’s Magazine | March 4th, 2022 | 6,731 words

I’ve always been fascinated by my dreams. I’ve made attempts to become more attuned to them over the years, but the books on lucid dreaming I’ve bought or the notepads I’ve kept on my nightstand to jot down middle-of-the-night notes end up collecting dust. These days, I’ve given up viewing sleep as a state I can control: my experiences with sleep paralysis — and my sleep apnea, whose treatment requires bulky hardware — make me feel completely powerless. So I read Michael W. Clune’s essay on dream incubation, the shaping of dreams according to a dreamer’s chosen words or images, with great interest. Clune takes us along for the ride as he tries a prototype of the Dormio, a device that enables you to shape the images that appear during hypnagogia, the transitional state between wakefulness and sleep. He explores thought-provoking questions about the mind and its potential for creativity once we’ve lost conscious control of our own thoughts, and what this might mean for the future — including more dystopian possibilities. I’ll end with a line I haven’t stopped thinking about: “Just below the surface of wakeful awareness, just a minute or two under it, everything is change.”—CLR

3. What Lies Beneath Hip-Hop’s Swagger

Danyel Smith | The New York Times Magazine | March 11th, 2022 | 2,391 words

The NYT Magazine‘s annual music issue hit a special gear this year, from Hanif Abdurraqib’s “sad bangers” paean to Jody Rosen’s exegesis of scam rap. However, one piece in particular was so dialed in, so sleek and powerful, that I had to get up and walk it off once I’d gotten to the end — and I’m not speaking metaphorically. Danyel Smith’s bonafides have long been indisputable: from running Vibe and Billboard to the recent Black Girl Songbook podcast, she’s been part of the music journalism firmament for more than 30 years. And here, she takes the measure of aggression and identity within hip-hop (“I am a fan, and I want all the smoke,” she writes early on), tracing it from today’s young nihilists back to her own early engagements with the genre. The magic isn’t simply in the threads she extends, yarn-mapping Moneybagg Yo and Kash Doll to Golden Age artists like LL Cool J and Queen Latifah, but in how she traces the underlying terrain that made that map necessary. “Spoiler alert: The bombast is a response, a defense, a pose, a stance,” she writes. “It’s magic, and it seduces. But it’s labor. Under threat of a variety of harms, you have to camouflage your soul. So if I’m tired — of always staying ready, so I never have to get ready — imagine the music-makers themselves.” Make time today. —PR

4. The Shape Of Walking

Victoria Livingstone | Joyland | March 15th, 2022 | 1,524 words

As Victoria Livingstone recounts the early days of the pandemic and the uncertainties about being around people — even outdoors — she retraces the many steps she took in a local park, observing others as they too navigated a familiar communal space that at the time, felt like uncharted territory. As the pandemic continued, Livingstone walks and walks. As her young daughter emerges from a stroller to take her own first tentative steps, Livingstone mulls the varying shapes and directions her essay could take as well as the simple and oh-so-necessary pleasures of discovery: “By spring of 2021, when pandemic restrictions briefly eased, she was running: a bouncing toddler run, more up and down than forward. She ran towards the swing-set or to the dandelions or to someone walking a dog or to a park bench or to a piece of trash that looked like a treasure or to the geese sitting in the middle of the field. Her direction was often impossible to predict…I struggled to write this essay even when I believed I was the singular author. Now my daughter continually reminds me that our steps intersect with the movements of those around us in illegible patterns. The rhetoric of walking resists order.” —KS

5. Under The Big Sky

Drew Magary | Defector | March 7th, 2022 | 2,443 words

As a teenager, I loved the Baz Luhrmann song “Everyone’s Free to Wear Sunscreen,” but it was not until much later that I learned to appreciate the line, “Be kind to your knees, you’ll miss them when they are gone.” A couple of ski accidents and a knee surgery later, I sure do miss those springy youthful knees. These lyrics were in my head reading this beautiful essay. Like the song, it is a lesson on how to get the most out of life — even when your body does not work in the way it once did. It’s a gentle piece — Drew Magary simply reminiscing about skiing with his Dad, his friends, and his family — but the writing draws you in, letting you share his happiness. Over the years, this joy becomes peppered with frustrations as new limitations appear: “I could feel my thighs and spine ready to burst as I held crucial turns. When I felt myself going too fast, I reflexively dragged my poles behind me, as if that would slow me down any. Skiing will expose you like that.” But, even while dragging his poles, Magary is still awed by simply being on a mountain and declares he will keep skiing even as his body and ability deteriorate, “It’s not about conquering the mountain. It’s simply about going there. A mountain is a god.” A sentiment with which I concur — even with my dodgy knees, I also still ski. —CW

The Cold War and its Fallout

Photo courtesy the author / Photo illustration by Katie Kosma

Vincent Czyz | Longreads | June 2018 | 21 minutes (5,418 words)


I was born into Cold War America, 1963: Brezhnev, the Kremlin, the KGB, ICBMs, the Warsaw Pact. My father was a hard-line Republican, a Rough Rider looking for his Roosevelt. Reentry vehicles, NATO, first-strike capability, limited strike, and hardened silos were all part of my vocabulary by the time I was 12. He dismissed with contempt liberals who wanted to cut the defense budget and showed me bar graphs comparing U.S. and Soviet military hardware. The red bars representing Soviet numbers always towered alarmingly over the blue ones, except when it came to helicopters; the United States had a lot of those.

The stalemate between the superpowers has been over for a long time, but every now and then I still catch some of the fallout. While making a furniture run, for example, with a friend — Danny had mothballed a bedroom set at his mother’s house and needed a hand getting it into his truck. We went to the front porch in jeans, construction boots, jackets. It was a chilly March afternoon. He rang the bell.

Danny’s mother, a small Korean woman, opened the door. She gasped when she saw me, then covered her mouth. I almost stepped back, wondering what I’d done wrong.

Mrs. Lo Cascio lowered her hands. “You look just like your father!”

From his early 20s on, my father had had a mustache, and this was the first time Mrs. Lo Cascio had seen me with a beard. Her reaction was a rerun of an incident at my father’s wake in June 1983, a couple of weeks before I turned 20. Uncle Eddy, an adopted member of the family, put a hand on my shoulder and squeezed. “You’re the ghost of your father when he was 17.” As often happens at funerals, his face performed a high-wire act between smiling and crying.

Read more…

Removing Beethoven’s Wig: A Classical Music Reading List

AP Photo/Capital City Weekly, James Brooks

I know as much about classical music as I do car mechanics, which is close to nothing, but I do know I like it. Not choruses. I’m not a fan of things like Bach’s choral works. And as much as I appreciate Mozart, his best work is too tempestuous for me. I prefer chillaxed baroque chamber music. I prefer Bach’s Orchestral Suites and Brandenburg Concertos. And Franz Schubert, Joseph Haydn, Felix Mendelssohn, Handel’s Water Music, “Pachelbel’s Canon,” and the kind of sprightly, buttoned-up small group sound that fits quiet workday mornings and cups of tea. If there’s anything I’m not, it’s buttoned-up, so my particular love of chamber music still surprises me. Bad Brains’ fast songs and Dead Moon’s gritty guitars sound like my spirit feels, but I’m a Gemini, and my opposite side is contemplative, calm, and still, suited to reggae, jazz piano trios, and Schubert’s Octets. I find that kind of classical soothing. Maybe it counteracts the blaring amplified guitar part of me. Whatever it does, I like it.

I first discovered classical music’s charms as an undergrad, during a period when Fugazi and instrumental surf music dominated my stereo. Cruising the listening stations at those chain mega-bookstores that thrived in the ’90s, with their stuffed rows of books, CDs, and bustling cafes, I found a few classical CDs that were well-reviewed and gave them a try. Where rock ‘n’ roll normally provided the soundtrack to my innumerable college road trips, the Brandenburg Concertos played on a certain winter trip to the mountains of southern California. It did not fit. Speeding along San Bernardino freeways, the charged up cellos made me feel like I was preparing to storm a castle. Driving in the forested mountains to hike old-growth pine forests, Bach’s music made it sound more like study time than bushwhacking time, but I liked the mood it provided, and I liked that the mood felt new. By the late ’90s, I’d grown tired of boot-stomping guitar bands and needed a break. As Fugazi sang in their song “Target”: “It’s cold outside and my hands are dry / Skin is cracked and I realize / That I hate the sound of guitars.” After a break, I came back to loud guitars, but I returned with more varied tastes and a diversified music collection that put Tchaikovsky albums next to ones by T. Rex and jazz trumpeter Thad Jones.

Classical music can seem so staid. It’s easy to imagine the kind of people who perform and listen to it being repressed, teetotalling stiffs who haven’t had sex, let alone a good buzz, for years. Blair Tindall’s book Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music proves that assumption wrong. Taking us inside this relatively insular subculture, which is lived backstage in concert halls, recitals, and academia, this insider’s portrait shows classical musicians who are as wild and deviant as rock ‘n’ rollers, and a subculture as dramatic as any other. As a young deviant myself, I was impressed. Her book, and the music, led me to read more about classical history and performance.

Here are a few interesting explorations of classical music history, practice, and performance that might help you hear the music, and think of its culture, differently, too.

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Beethoven’s Kapow” (Justin Davidson, New York Magazine, March 17, 2010)

Classical music can seem so staid that you don’t associate it with shock or revolution, but Beethoven’s Third Symphony has continued to shock people since the composer first performed it in April of 1805. Writer Justin Davidson loves the piece, and keeps coming back to it.

 If I could crash any cultural event in history, it would be the night in April 1805 when a short man with a Kirk Douglas chin and a wrestler’s build stomped onto the stage of the Theater an der Wien in Vienna. Ludwig van Beethoven, 34 years old and already well along the way to deafness, swiveled to face a group of tense musicians and whipped them into playing a pair of fist-on-the-table E-flat major chords (blam! … blam!), followed by a quietly rocking cello melody. If I listen hard enough, I can almost transport myself into that stuffy, stuccoed room. I inhale the smells of damp wool and kerosene and feel the first, transformative shock of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the “Eroica,” as it exploded into the world.

But Davidson also recognizes the way shocking, profound art or ideas — things that were once revolutionary — grow familiar enough to be tame over time. “Beethoven toyed with expectations we do not have and dismantled conventions that no longer guide us,” writes Davidson. “As a result, the ‘Eroica,’ which emerged with such blinding energy that some of its first listeners thought its composer must be insane, sounds like settled wisdom to us.”

Why do we reenact these rituals of revolution when revolution is no longer at stake? How can an act of artistic radicalism retain the power to disturb after two centuries? What’s left when surprise has been neutralized and influence absorbed?

Strike With the Band” (Kate Wagner, The Baffler, September 3, 2019)

“The world of classical music is neither noble nor fair,” Wagner writes, “though its reputation says otherwise.” Wagner played violin since her parents first rented her one when she was 4. After accruing $44,000 of student loan debt and developing carpal tunnel in college, she quit music and switched careers. “Despite its reputation as being a pastime of the rich and cultured elite, classical musicianship is better understood as a job, a shitty job, and the people who do that job are workers just as exploited as any Teamster.” Her illuminating essay reveals the true story about low pay, limited job opportunities, and rented instruments, which is the story of “arts under capitalism, in a culture where the abandonment of government funding results in a void filled only by wealthy donors and bloodsucking companies.” In the process, her essay dismantles the fundamental American myth of meritocracy and access.

Classical music is cruel not because there are winners and losers, first chairs and second chairs, but because it lies about the fact that these winners and losers are chosen long before the first moment a young child picks up an instrument. It doesn’t matter if you study composition, devote years to an instrument, or simply have the desire to teach—either at the university level or in the public school system. If you come from a less-than-wealthy family, or from a place other than the wealthiest cities, the odds are stacked against you no matter how much you sacrifice, how hard you work, or, yes, how talented you are.

Twinkle, Twinkle, Vogel Staar” (Elena Passarello, Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 2016)

Unlike parrots, Starlings do not repeat back what you sing to them, but they transmute, scramble, and modify your singing enough to give you a new view of it. When the young Mozart whistled at a caged starling in a Vienna shop, the way the bird sang it back changed how Mozart heard his song, and how he wrote, and he immediately bought the bird.

There is no other live-animal purchase in Mozart’s expense book, and no more handwritten melodies; no additional transactions were praised as schön! This is one of the very few things we even know about his purchasing habits. He’d only begun tracking his spending that year, and by late summer, Mozart had abandoned the practice and only used that notebook to steal random phrases of English. So this note of sale is special among the extant scraps from his life.

The purchase of this bird, Mozart’s “Vogel Staar,” marks a critical point for the classical period. At the end the of eighteenth century, tunes were never more sparkling or more kept, their composers obsessive over the rhetoric of sonata form: first establishing a theme, then creating tension through a new theme and key, then stretching it into a dizzying search for resolution, and finally finding the resolve in a rollicking coda. The formal understanding of this four-part structure permeated classical symphony, sonata, and concerto. By 1784, sonata form had imprinted itself on the listening culture enough to feel like instinct; Vienna audiences could rest comfortably in the run of classical forms as familiar—and thus enjoyable—narratives. And nobody played this cagey game more giddily than Mozart.

Claus Felix/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Darkness Invisible” (Wendy Lesser, The Threepenny Review, Winter 2011)

The Threepenny Penny review editor Wendy Lesser has written frequently about classical music. In 2010, she sat in a New York City concert hall in complete darkness for an hour, listening to a performance of Georg Friedrich Haas’ third string quartet. Listening was all the audience could do. “We were unable to see our hands before our faces, much less check our watches or glance at our companions,“ she wrote. It was an experiment: how did sensory deprivation change the listening experience? Would the experience have been different with music she’d previously heard?

Sitting in the dark at a concert is a way of being at once alone and in the company of others. As I explored my unusual and tourist feeling of privacy (stretching about in ways I would never do in a lit concert hall, yawning widely, tilting my head way back or lackadaisically from side to side, and repeatedly holding my hands in front of my face to see if they had become visible yet), I thought of D.W. Winecott’s notion about how the child learns to be alone in the presence of its mother – that is, the baby gets to test out being solitary and accompanied at the same time. I imagined I was enjoying this childish sensation immensely, and yet on some level I must have felt a bit of fear or anxiety too, as I realized during my wild head-tilts, when I discovered that the room was not actually completely dark. There were two rows very faint almost-lights barely visible in the ceiling, and another ghostly spot at the very back of the room – and this, strangely, filled me with the same kind of energetic hope that hostages and TV thrillers feel when they come up on a nail or some other sharp protrusion against which they can slowly fray away their binding ropes. But try as I might, I could not free myself from the darkness: I could never manage to see a thing, not even my pale hands waved directly in front of my face. Once, in a moment of casual listening such as one might do at a regular concert, I closed my eyes, and the shock when I opened them and perceived no difference at all with severe.

Apparition in the Woods” (Alex Ross, The New Yorker, July 9, 2007)

The story’s subhead “Rescuing Sibelius from silence” is vague and cryptic, but this is the story of Finland’s greatest composer, arguably what Ross calls its ”chief celebrity in any field.”

Composing music may be the loneliest of artistic pursuits. It is a laborious traversal of an imaginary landscape. Emerging from the process is an artwork in code, which other musicians must be persuaded to unravel. Nameless terrors creep into the limbo between composition and performance, during which the score sits mutely on the desk. Hans Pfitzner dramatized that moment of panic and doubt in “Palestrina,” his 1917 “musical legend” about the life of the Italian Renaissance master. The character of Palestrina speaks for colleagues across the centuries when he stops his work to cry, “What is the point of all this? Ach, what is it for?”

The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius may have asked that question once too often. The crisis point of his career arrived in the late 1920s and the early 30s, when he was being lionized as a new Beethoven in England and America, and dismissed as a purveyor of kitsch in the tastemaking European music centers, where atonality and other modern languages dominated the scene. The contrasts in the reception of his music, with its extremes of splendor and strangeness, matched the manic depressive extremes of his personality—an alcoholic oscillation between grandiosity and self-loathing. Sometimes he believed that he was in direct communication with the Almighty (“For an instant God opens the door and His orchestra plays the Fifth Symphony,” he wrote in a letter) and sometimes he felt worthless. In 1927, when he was sixty-one, he wrote in his diary, “Isolation and loneliness are driving me to despair….In order to survive, I have to have alcohol….I’m abused, alone, and all my real friends are dead. My prestige here at present is rock bottom. Impossible to work. If only there were a way out.”

Notes on Birdsong” (Olivia Giovetti, VAN Magazine, May 29, 2020)

Birds are among nature’s greatest musicians. “The 20th and 21st centuries teemed with birdsong quotations in music,“ Giovetti in an essay of surprising connections, “from Amy Beach’s “Hermit Thrush at Eve” to John Luther Adams’s “Canticles of the Holy Wind.” But the era has most closely been associated with Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). As a teenager in Aube, he began to notice the avian world.“ Humans have matched nature’s beauty with our own beautiful music and ugliness.

In the video of Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper in Central Park, this same shift takes place in Amy Cooper’s voice when she calls the police. It’s so uncanny it may as well have been part of a score.

“I’m going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life,” she tells Christian as she dials. She repeats “African-American” twice with the dispatcher. When it seems like she needs to explain the situation a third time, her tone modulates from steady (although perhaps slightly heightened by adrenaline and stress) to screaming in shorter breaths: “I’m being threatened by a man in the Ramble, please send the cops immediately!”

“Strategic White Womanhood is a spectacle that permits the actual issue at hand to take a back seat to the emotions of the white woman, with the convenient effect that the status quo continues,” writes Ruby Hamad in her forthcoming book, White Tears/Brown Scars. “White women’s tears are fundamental to the success of whiteness. Their distress is a weapon that prevents people of colour from being able to assert themselves or effectively challenge white racism and alter the fundamental inequalities built into the system. Consequently, we all stay in the same place while whiteness reigns supreme, often unacknowledged and unnamed.”

Patrick Pleul/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

The Prodigy Complex” (Hartmut Welscher, VAN Magazine, October 6, 2016)

“Prodigies exist in every field,” Welscher writes. “But since the time of Leopold Mozart, who dragged his son through the drawing rooms of Europe’s nobility like a trained monkey, the prodigal youngster has become a familiar, peculiar trope in classical music hagiography.” What is it about the idea of in-born genius, of the gifted child destined for greatness, that captivates so many cultures? America in particular fails to empathize for the talented childhood whose lives permanently suffer from the way their parents and society use them as commodities. Welscher exposes the ethical dimensions of the prodigy complex, what he beautifully calls “the darker side of prodigy reception,” focusing on coverage the 10-year old composer Alma Deutscher received.

In a profile of Deutscher for Die Zeit, the well-known journalist Uwe Jean Heuser asks, “Who is this child who, at the age of 10, is capable of amazing an ambitious, knowledgeable audience?” Isn’t the real question: Who is this audience that allows itself to be amazed by a child? Is “ambitious” or “knowledgeable” really the right way to describe an audience that is satisfied by “poise and skill,” when it should expect communicated life experience, storytelling, expression? Are these qualities really so much harder to judge in musicians? As Solomon writes, “Musical prodigies are sometimes compared to child actors, but child actors portray children; no one pays to watch a six-year-old playing Hamlet.”

Symphony of Millions” (Alex Ross, The New Yorker, June 30, 2008)

So few people publish long stories about classical music that Alex Ross, The New Yorker’s music critic, appears in this list twice. Classical music, once such a provincial Western music, had taken up residence inside Communist China. “For the past fifteen or twenty years, classical music has been very à la mode in China,“ one accomplished composer told Ross. Ross visited Beijing to investigate if China was indeed the future of classical music. Ross found a classic music culture that reflected Communist China of that time: suppressed, well-polished and publicized in a self-serving propoganda-type way, and fraught with the tension between the freedom practitioners wanted and what little freedom they had.

For a musician on Long Yu’s level, politics is unavoidable. Since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, the Party has discouraged dissent not just by clamping down on rebellious voices but by handsomely rewarding those who play it safe. Richard Kraus, in his book The Party and the Arty in China, writes, “By 1982, the Party had given up trying to purge all dissident voices and opted instead for the strategy of urging all arts organizations to strive to earn money. “Those who work within the system may be expected to reach the stage where they can win prizes, obtain sinecures, hold illustrious posts, and we will paid for teaching. Artists end up censoring themselves – a habit ingrained in Chinese history. Behind the industrious façade is a fair degree of political anxiety. Reviews often read like press releases; indeed, I was told that concert organizations routinely pay journalist to provide favorable coverage. Critics feel pressure to deliver positive judgments, and, if they don’t, they may be reprimanded or hounded by colleagues. One critic I talked to got fed up and quit writing about music all together.

Crowd Control” (Wendy Lesser, The Threepenny Review, Spring 2008)

As with Ross, Lesser writes so well, and so distinctly, about classical music, that this list would be insincere not to include another piece.  Unfortunately, this one doesn’t appear online for free in full, but it’s too unique not to include. Watching an orchestra, you can’t miss the conductor, but it takes effort to truly see them. After watching one conductor, Simon Rattle, lead the Berlin Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall in 2008, Lesser trained her lens on him to examine the conductor’s larger triumphs, challenges, and contribution to orchestral performance.

Whenever a conductor lifts his arms, points his fingers, or gestures with his head, he is actually controlling thousands of body parts. These include (among others) the right arms and left fingers of the string players, the hands and lungs of the woodwinds, the lips of the brass section, the writes of the percussionists, and the eyes and ears of all the musicians performing under him. But the body parts also include the eyes, ears, lungs, and hands of those of us out there in the audience; we too are watching his characteristic movements, listening for the notes, catching our breaths, bringing our palms together in applause. The control can never be perfect, in regard to either the bodies onstage or those off it, and that is a good thing, because robots can neither play nor appreciate music. But to the extent a conductor’s control approaches perfection, in a Zeno’s Paradox-like fashion, without ever getting there, we in the audience stand to benefit. Listening to the Berlin Philharmonic perform under Simon Rattle, one has a sense of what that near-perfection might sound like.

The Handgun and the Haunted Range

Justin Quarry | Longreads | January 2018 | 22 minutes (5,444 words)


When my father died in the winter of 2000, back when I was newly 19, the single thing he left me was a nine-millimeter pistol. The day after his funeral, my grandfather simply told me my father wanted me to have it, handing it to me in its ragged original packaging — spare bullets, along with the pistol, spilling from the Styrofoam encasement as I opened the discolored box.

This inheritance both surprised and confused me. For one thing, though I’d spent my early childhood with rifles and shotguns racked against the walls of our home and the rear window of my father’s Jeep, with countless taxidermied deer heads gazing down at me apathetically, I’d never known my father to own a handgun. For another, unlike all the other men in my family, I’d never spent a second in a tree stand, didn’t even recall playing with toy guns; rather than pretending to shoot deer or Iraqi soldiers, for instance, one Christmas I requested and received a custom-made deer costume for my Cabbage Patch doll, Casey.

The pistol also puzzled me because I hadn’t necessarily expected to inherit anything at all from my father. Over the prior 10 years, my mother had to fight for nearly all the child support she’d received, and it was an open secret that, when my mother had divorced him, he’d spent the $20,000 my great-grandmother had given him to split between my older brother and me, once we were of age, on a revenge Grand Prix. My mother had pined for a Grand Prix in the months before she left him, and so he bought one for himself, kept it immaculate, and always left it in the furthest reaches of parking lots, where it was least likely to get dinged.

Two weeks before I’d gotten the gun, and hardly a month into my second semester at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, my father’s family called me back home to Northeast Arkansas to visit him for the last time I would see him conscious. Only a week after that, they called me home again to see him, then in a coma, die.

That day, when we all knew his body was finally going to expire as we listened to its death rattle, none of the other men in my family, which is to say none of the people closest to him, could bear to be with him. My brother, who was six years older than me and had lived with my father after our parents divorced, was too afraid. My grandfather, who was also my father’s best friend, my father his namesake, was too emotionally unstable, sleepless for weeks, having had a dream in which my father was lost on a hunt at night, and as he called for my grandfather, no matter which way my grandfather pointed his light, no matter which way he stumbled in the woods, my grandfather couldn’t find his son. And so there I was at my father’s bedside with the women of the family — with the women, where I usually was. I thought that as one of his three closest living relations, even though he and I weren’t at all intimate, it was my place to be with him when he died.

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